6 Common Habits That Spike Your Dementia Risk, Doctors Say


The symptoms of Alzheimer's disease and related dementias (ADRD) can be subtle and easy to miss, making it difficult to spot the warning signs of cognitive decline. (For example, did you know that depression can be an early symptom of dementia?) What's more, some of our common, everyday habits can have a profound effect on our brain health.

Over 10 million new cases of dementia are diagnosed worldwide each year, according to Alzheimer's Disease International: That's about one every three seconds. And since dementia has no cure, the best approach to fighting ADRD right now is to make lifestyle choices that can help reduce your risk.

Not sure where to start? Read on for six common habits—which may not seem connected to your brain health—that doctors say contribute to cognitive decline and dementia.

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Being antisocial
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Talking, listening, laughing, confiding… these things aren't just good for your social life, they affect your overall wellness, too—and that includes your brain health.

"Staying socially engaged may help protect against Alzheimer's disease and dementia in later life; maintaining a strong network of family and friends is very important," advises Verna R. Porter, MD, neurologist and director of the Dementia, Alzheimer's Disease and Neurocognitive Disorders at Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, California."Regularly connecting with others, face-to-face, is important." Porter adds that "Social connections may also be enhanced through volunteer organizations, joining various clubs or social group, taking a group classes (e.g. in a gym or a community college) or getting out into the community (e.g. going to the movies, the park, museums, and other public places)."

Neglecting your oral hygiene

Next time you think about skipping your nightly floss-and-brush routine, think again. You might not realize there's a link between poor oral hygiene and cognitive decline, but making sure to brush and floss your teeth regularly is an easy way to keep your brain healthy. Research "suggests that bacteria that cause gum disease are also associated with the development of Alzheimer's disease and related dementias, especially vascular dementia," reports the National Institute on Aging (NIA).

Of course, that's not the only reason to make brushing and flossing part of your routine. "Dental and oral health is an essential part of your overall health and well-being," says Healthline. "Poor oral hygiene can lead to dental cavities and gum disease, and has also been linked to heart disease, cancer, and diabetes."

Being sedentary—both physically and mentally
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Vernon Williams, MD, sports neurologist and director of the Center for Sports Neurology and Pain Medicine at Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute in Los Angeles, California, notes that there is "plenty of information out there about 'brain exercises' to enhance neurological function and brain performance."

Learning something new and challenging yourself with crossword puzzles and other brain teasers is indeed good for your cognitive health. But "many people may not realize that actual physical exercise, especially those exercises designed to build lean muscle mass, can have a significant positive impact on a person's quality of life," says Williams.

Think you need an expensive gym membership or a personal trainer? Think again. You can reap the benefits of exercise with just 20 minutes of exercise a day, according to a Jan. 2022 study published in Alzheimer's & Dementia: The Journal of the Alzheimer's Association.

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Smoking cigarettes is harmful to your health in almost too many ways to count. It spikes your risk of "cancer, heart disease, stroke, lung diseases, diabetes, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which includes emphysema and chronic bronchitis," according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as well as "tuberculosis, certain eye diseases, and problems of the immune system, including rheumatoid arthritis."

In addition, "smoking increases the risk of vascular problems, including strokes or smaller bleeds in the brain, which are also risk factors for dementia," according to the Alzheimer's Society, which also reports that "toxins in cigarette smoke cause inflammation and stress to cells, which have both been linked to the development of Alzheimer's disease."

Skimping on sleep
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The effects of burning the midnight oil go far beyond feeling out of sorts the next day. "Sleep isn't something you should sacrifice if you want to enhance your brain health," warns Williams. "Study after study has shown that even an hour or two less sleep each night for just a few consecutive nights can have effects on the brain that last longer than those few days of disrupted rest."

Williams cautions that sleep deprivation "can put you in danger while driving or working," and can also cause depression. If you suffer from chronic insomnia, plenty of tips and tricks can help you sleep better, including implementing a nightly bedtime routine and making your bed in the morning.

"Make brain health a priority by making sleep a priority," Williams urges.

Drinking alcohol

Drinking is another habit that can have long-term, negative effects on your brain health. The American Addiction Centers notes that alcohol consumption can result in accidents, such as falls, that lead to head injuries.

"People who binge drink or drink heavily are more likely to develop dementia and be diagnosed at earlier ages compared to nondrinkers," says the site, adding that "long-term heavy drinking also places people at increased risk of developing Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome (WKS)… a condition that shares certain symptoms with dementia."